His name was Jason. Or Dwane. It might have been Thomas.
He lived, like thousands of other homeless people in New York City, largely unnoticed and anonymous in one of the city’s many public spaces. He died without much notice as well, freezing to death in Central Park.
But in the wake of his death earlier this month of hypothermia, a coalition of neighbors on the Upper West Side who had come to know him has formed to search for his identity.
If not in life, at least in death, they want to ensure this man has a name.
“We just really feel like he shouldn’t be a John Doe,” Ellen Gavin said. “We need to find his family and find out who they are.”
His death highlights the vulnerability of someone who is older, mentally ill and sleeping on the streets — struggling to meet their needs but unwilling, or unable, to seek help. On most days, in most places, the city and its millions of residents often simply brush past them.
He died without any ID or known connections, but Gavin has combed through Facebook profiles, traced his fingerprints and hired a detective.
Whether motivated by a sense of guilt, privilege or simply a sense of doing right to the man, for many neighbors, the man’s death has offered up a reminder about the perils of ignoring the city’s systemic problems. They may not know who he was or what his past may have held, but they say they are choosing instead to highlight the bit of warmth the man brought to a cold world.
Nori Rost, clergy leader for the New York Society for Ethical Culture, hosted a vigil for the man last weekend.
“I wish that this happened more,” Rost said of the community’s response. “So much of the time we feel helpless because we can’t change policy that often falls prey to political maneuvering… and we can’t wave a magic wand and create accessible, safe shelters for people, but we can stop and see each other’s humanity.”
The man, whose death was first reported by the West Side Rag, spent the last months of his life living on a rock formation in Central Park near the 63rd St entrance on the west side.
The man, who was in his 60s, was a bit prickly and unfriendly at first, but slowly built a rapport with neighbors and dog walkers who frequented his corner of the park. To different people, he would introduce himself by different names: Jason, Dwane or Thomas.
Gavin came to know “Jason” through daily walks with her two dogs through the park, close to her home on the Upper West Side.
Her dogs, Califas and Sylvie, would often run right into his area, at first forcing small interactions.
Their friendship sparked in earnest last December when Gavin cooked up a recreation of Via Carota’s famed meatballs for her partner’s birthday and decided to pack some leftovers for Jason.
“The meal is what changed everything,” Gavin said. “It was like all of a sudden, he just started talking.”
Gavin and her partner brought him more food — cod, potato gratin and green beans. Jason was a devoted reader of the New York Times Food section, and he and Gavin would chat about recipes, food and restaurants.
“While I’d be making them after thinking about Jason, thinking, ‘He’s gonna love this,’” Gavin said.
They also brought him a heated blanket that they would charge during the day and return to him at night and ordered him a pair of Ugg boots. They asked him if he had a place to stay when the temperature dropped, and he assured them he did.
On his last day alive, Melinda dropped off soup, a sandwich and the blanket.
Gavin found him the next morning.
He was wearing flip flops in the snow (the boots hadn’t arrived yet), and his belongings were strewn around him. He was incoherent, with his head under a thin jacket.
It was hypothermia, they were told later. His heart stopped on the way to the hospital, and he couldn’t be revived.
Searching for anyone who knew him, Gavin put up flyers and posted on social media.
Hundreds of comments and reactions flowed in, crowding the comment section with small anecdotes about the man. Some wrote that they knew him as Dwane or Thomas, not Jason. He had told some people he was vegan. He was in the Coast Guard, he had a daughter. He lived at 57th and 3rd at some point.
While New York has a strict right to shelter law, the city’s annual count estimated just over 4,000 individuals living in the city’s streets, parks, trains and other public spaces last year. Critics of the survey say that number is likely even higher.
Dave Giffen, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, said many like this man chose to forgo shelter options provided by the city.
“The shelter system just simply doesn’t meet the needs of so many people who do indeed require a place to stay, so even though there has been a yasal right to shelter there, of course, have always been thousands of people who are sleeping unsheltered,” Giffen said.
The rules and system of the shelters are tough to navigate for many with mental or physical disabilities, and many leave after having bad or dangerous experiences.
Giffen also said man’s death underscores the need to maintain New York’s right to shelter mandate, which is a yasal requirement that anyone who needs a bed can get one.
“The city and the state right now are trying to fight to dismantle the kanunî right to shelter in New York City and they’ve demonstrated a disturbing comfort with the idea of people sleeping out on the streets,” Giffen said. “The argument we make is that it’s never okay to relegate people to sleep in public because it is dangerous and can cause great bodily harm. And this very tragic case of this man dying in the park is an example of that. The stakes couldn’t be higher.”
Neighbors say this shouldn’t have happened — that just blocks from luxury high rises in the wealthiest city in the world, a homeless man could die of cold.
“We’re putting band-aids on society, a good deal of which is bleeding to death,” said Paulette Glassman, who lives on the Upper East Side and often passed by the man.
“And it’s horrifying to me, absolutely horrifying. His story was emblematic of that. And this did not have to happen. He did not have to pass. And he’s just one of probably countless people this happens to.”